You can swim better with open hands

A Homily for Proper 19, Year B: Mark 8:27-38

"Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, my strength, and my redeemer"

This prayer is traditionally the opening prayer for any homily, and today it happens to also be in the lectionary. It is with this prayer that I want to begin our meditation for today: that the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts are acceptable to God: that is, a fitting and pleasing offering unto God. It is not what I say that is important–I assure you it is not–it is rather what you are thinking about while I say it; this is true work of cooperation with the Holy Spirit that is in you.

As Saint Paul says,

“present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your rational offering of divine service [...] [that we may be] transformed by the renewing of our minds, so that we may prove what is the good, well-pleasing, and perfect will of God.” (Romans 12:1 EOB).

(A Pleasing Offering)

Our Gospel lesson comes on the heels of the curious episode of Jesus partially healing a blind man, checking his vitals, and then fully healing him. Jesus then changes focus to his own identity: Peter says the remarkable and the true, that Jesus is the Messiah, only to prove a short time later that his understanding was not as true as his statement. While his mouth revealed a truth, his heart and mind remained among the fog of walking trees of the half-healed blind man, and Peter found himself corrected: he had in his “mind not the things of God, but the things of men.” (Mark 8:33 KJV).

In correcting Peter, Jesus provides him with words that help in healing his understanding:

“Whoever wants to come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. Indeed, whoever wants to save his life will lose it; and whoever will lose his life for my sake and for the sake of the Good News will save it. What will it profit if someone gains the whole world and loses his life? Or what will someone give in exchange for his life?” (Mark 8:34-36 EOB)

It is this passage that struck me:

Jesus is drawing his disciples out of the things of men, and drawing them into the things of God. Six days later, our Lord will reveal himself to Peter, James, and John in what is called the ‘Transfiguration’: natural men bearing witness to the things of God.

What are the things of men, also known as the World?

None of us can deny that gaining the whole world has its appeal.
We want to have things, and we want relationships: it is part of who we are. We were created to be in community, and endowed by our creator to express dominion–or caretaking–of the Lord's creation. In the context of Peter and the disciples, they are mistaking the Christ–the Messiah–for an earthly revolution against an oppressive empire, this, paired with the Transfiguration forms a narrative unit with the healing of the blind man: they see the Messiah as the formerly blind man sees trees walking.

But how does this help us? Followers of Christ, and the church who originally read Saint Mark’s Gospel, knew Christ; indeed, they knew and celebrated him who was revealed in the clarity of the Transfiguration and of reality of the Resurrection. They were already part of the called out community, the church.

I would suggest that for us, we see ‘the world’ very simply: it is all the things that are not in alignment with “the good, well-pleasing, and perfect will of God,” accomplished by way of the renewal of our minds.
Saint Paul’s use here offers insight: The world, that is, the things of men, are just that: the things of men; they are not the creation of God. Its root is in our fallen souls. Our Lord cares not just about the results of the things of men: our houses, jobs, politics: he considers that which is in the hearts of men. Even when we desire good things; for Peter, the Pharisees, and the Sadducees all desired what was externally good: establishing a theocracy for the right worship of God, over against a pagan one. But to gain all of it, even if an object is pleasing to the eye, even something good, does not mean we are able to receive it.

The problem with such fruit of our labor is, like the fruit of the garden, is not that it is intrinsically bad, but that we as humans are not able to receive good things when our minds and hearts are set on the wrong desires. Indeed, when we seek to gain what _we want _most, it changes us. This is the dialectic dance of revolution overthrowing the old powers to establish the new order, even for the good of the world, all too often requires that the revolutionary become the oppressor. Peter had this in mind and Christ rebuked him.

But we in the 21st century West usually don’t think of ourselves as revolutionaries. Our dreams of the world are often less lofty, and perhaps more universal. We want to be heard, we want to be understood by others, to be seen, to be valued, if not by the whole earth than by our community or tribe. Yet in valuing these things, we don't think of the risk of exchanging our souls to achieve greater connection with others, less alienation, or some kind of self-improvement. Seldom does it appear that our soul is demanded of us in order to be understood, heard, valued, by the world around us.
Choosing the world in this way takes many forms, but I believe the lowest common denominator is this: In our identity-infatuated, sex-obsessed Western culture, it is our selves that we are trained to worship. It is not ‘the true, the good, the beautiful’ that we uphold, but all too often my expression of truth, my idea of good, and my beauty, and likewise affirm such individual definitions in others, even when contradictory.

What if we reject this? Rejecting our culture’s expected worship of self, for the sake of God–who is truth, is good, and is the source of all that is beautiful–means alienation from parts of society– especially online, but increasingly in workplaces and our own families. I will note that our passage in James is helpful in dealing with this: remember that the impulses of our tongues are not by default trustworthy, but the Holy Spirit can help us bridle the unbroken horse.

Capitulating to parts of culture that contradict the Body of Christ means participating in systems of society that make madness, sanity, and sanity, madness. Further, if we listen to culture rather than our Saviour long enough, we just might start believing the lie.


So, then, what is the life we are trying to save? What kind of life?

I’ll answer this partially by quoting from Henri Nouwen:

“Aren’t you, like me, hoping that some person, thing, or event will come along to give you that final feeling of inner well-being you desire? I think you understand what I am talking about. Don’t you often hope: “May this book, idea, course, trip, job, country, or relationship fulfill my deepest desire.” But as long as you are waiting for that mysterious moment you will go on running helter-skelter, always anxious and restless, always lustful and angry, never fully satisfied. You know that this is the compulsiveness that keeps us going and busy, but at the same time makes us wonder whether we are getting anywhere in the long run. This is the way to spiritual exhaustion and burn-out. This is the way to spiritual death.” -Henri Nouwen, Live of the Beloved.

Another by the same author:

“Society was recorded by the desert fathers as a shipwreck from which each single, individual man had to swim for his life.” - Henri Nouwen, The Way of the Heart.

The way to gain life, then, is not in finding our own personal best by what culture has conditioned us to value–yes, to a degree, even when in a Christian culture: the desert fathers were a reform movement once Christianity was not only legal, but popular.

The way of life, the abundant life, is following Christ, following him in bearing our own Crosses. Mind you, we are not bearing Jesus’ cross: as the prayer book says, he “made there—by his one oblation of himself once offered—a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world.” (1662 BCP: International Edition)
So we don’t have to do what Jesus did. We have to follow the life that Jesus would have for us, for his sake. This means kenosis, that is, the word for self-emptying obedience to the will and providence of God. We all have things which we want, that may seem good, but all too often they will capture our hearts more than they ought, and in response to this we must follow Christ: not my will, but yours be done.

To follow in this way sounds hard. But it would not be given to us if it were impossible; indeed we are given a task and_ a helper, the Holy Spirit_, to bring about all the Lord wishes to accomplish in us.

Our process of salvation began at our baptism, and we who are baptised are indwelt by the Holy Ghost, whom Jesus sent for our sake. And help he does; to those who ask, Christ, because of the Holy Spirit, works in and through us to spread the Gospel: that the peace we seek, the community we yearn for–koinonia–, the eternally abundant life that is worth more than the world, is available to any and all who will deny their self-deceived self, which is taking up a cross, and follow the resurrected Lord, who has already won the victory and will be faithful to complete that same victory in you, if only you reach for him with an open hand.


Opening our hand is hard, because it is with our hand we hold on to that which we think we want most.

So how do we open our hands? This happens, little by little, but like the tongue there are external aids to gaining a posture of reception: Humility and Charity (love).

Caesarius, a 6th century Bishop said it this way:

"One who claims to abide in Christ ought to walk as he walked. Would you follow Christ? Then be humble as he was humble. Do not scorn his lowliness if you want to reach his exaltation. Human sin made the road rough. Christ’s resurrection leveled it. By passing over it himself, he transformed the narrowest of tracks into a royal highway. Two feet are needed to run along this highway; they are humility and charity. Everyone wants to get to the top —well, the first step to take is humility. Why take strides that are too big for you —do you want to fall instead of going up? Begin with the first step, humility, and you will already be climbing."

This is not for good works, or to earn our way to heaven – Anglicans tend to be Augustinians, not Pelagians. It is because striving for humility and charity–that is, love–helps us swim from the shipwreck to the secure rock of Christ. Pursuing these virtues is not just opening your hand, but allowing it to be taken up by Christ, through the Holy Spirit, to guide you as to sojourn.

There’s one last bit that always seems forgotten:

We are not to give up our lives for Jesus alone; we are to give up our lives also for the sake of the good news of the kingdom of Christ. Not only is a solo Christian an oxymoron, but a Christian that is not conveying the love of Christ to his or her neighbor is not fully abandoning the fallen self. Remember the summary of the law:

“Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it; Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.” (1928 BCP)

Living the gospel is living the joyful reality of the good news of the resurrection in this life. Knowing what inheritance we have been promised changes the way we endure hardship, take risks, invest in relationships. Indeed, if we keep this sort of kingdom in mind, we open the clouded windows of our eyes, and where there were objects (trees, if you will) we now see the image of God in our neighbor. In this there is no wasted time: every conversation –our time with one another, even digitally– connects to our eternal reality, as we are mindful of God working in and through us to accomplish restoration and reconciliation of all creation with himself.

As Saint Paul says,

“Therefore, anyone who is in Christ is a new creation! The old things have passed away. Behold, all things have become new! But all things are of God, who reconciled us to himself through Jesus Christ and who gave to us the ministry of reconciliation. What I mean is that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not imputing sins, but having entrusted us with the word of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors of Christ: it is as if God were making his supplication through us: we beg you, [that is, the world], on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God!” (2 Corinthians 5:17–20 EOB)

Those who neglect cultivating love, humility, and charity (another way of saying love your neighbor) often lose track of what good it does in them, in the act of giving, and therefore are less capable of receiving, or even being aware of what is being offered, from God and others.

Sometimes our impulse for self-preservation prevents us from receiving that which the heavens declare to be a continual, eternal gift; indeed,

“Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there can be no variation or shifting shadow. 18 He brought us forth of his own will by the word of truth, so that we should be a kind of first fruits of his creatures.” (James 1:17–18 EOB).

Our God is a loving God, whose nature is grace, that is giving acts of love. We, who have received this, are the first fruits, and we are sent out as ambassadors for the life of the whole world.

(Communion)

In a few minutes, we will approach our Lord, present in the Bread and Wine and allow him to dwell in us, for the benefit of our growing into that which He always intended for us to be. This is sustaining, saving food for the journey. We are invited to clear the burnt embers of the past, sweep them away, and, repented, draw near with faith and receive with open hands.

In the name of the ✠ Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, Amen.